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7 Rules for Great Technical Presentations

One of the hardest things to do in life is to express your ideas to another person. While good communication skills are a 'nice to have' for most human interaction, when it comes to making software, they're crucial.


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One of the hardest things to do in life is to express one's ideas to another person. While good communication skills are a "nice to have" for most human interaction, when it comes to making software it's crucial.

To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, when it comes to software, the ability to express an idea meaningfully and accurately isn't the only thing, it's everything. Software is by nature intangible. What is code but the expression of an abstraction held in the head of a developer communicated to another developer or to a machine. In order for software to come alive, ideas must flow between people and machines.

We developers are pretty good at talking to individuals and machines. It's when the time comes to talk to a room full of strangers that we have trouble. While our work might carry an intrinsic excitement to those in the know, when it comes to time to share our thinking with an unknown audience, dreariness is more the rule than the exception. It's as if somewhere along the line the message came down that all you need to do to make a technical presentation is to create some PowerPoint slides, get up in front of the room and then talk through your PowerPoint backdrop.



Well, I am here to tell you that if you do as described above, you'll get the inevitable: a room full of people that will probably remember one thing when your presentation is over-it was boring.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Just about anybody can deliver a highly technical presentation that is engaging, entertaining and informative. There are a variety of ways to learn how to do so. My offering is the7 Rules for Making Great Technical Presentations:
    1. Know thy stuff
    2. It's a show; you're an actor; get used to it
    3. Understand that it is really, really hard to look ridiculous
    4. Forget PowerPoint; tell a story
    5. Play Charades a lot
    6. Example, examples, examples
    7. It takes three shots to get it right

1. Know Thy Stuff

The first trick to doing a great technical presentation is that you really have to know a whole lot about your topic. The difference between an expert professional and an infomercial celebrity is that the professional brings the weight of authority to a presentation. When you are an expert, it shows at an almost subliminal level. You can teach an expert to be a showman. But it's rare to be able to teach a showman to be an expert.

2. It's a Show; You're an Actor; Get Used to It

Your presentation is a performance in which you are an actor playing the lead role. Thus, the fundamentals of acting count-clear diction, intentional movement, awareness of the environment, focus on the audience, sincerity in articulation, engaging script-all the stuff that makes a movie worth watching are in play when you are giving your talk.

Your presentation is a show. Sure, attendees might they're there to get the technical lowdown about the topic at hand. But once seated, they want to be entertained. Your talk is just one of the hundreds of other reality shows that fill their lives. Thus, you'll do well to understand, as much as you might not really want to accept it, that your primary responsibility is to engage and entertain your audience. Content comes second.

A good presenter can read from the telephone book and make it entertaining. Set this as your standard and work from there.

3. Understand That It's Really, Really Hard to Look Ridiculous

I've worked with a lot of developers on technical presentations. The one thing just about all report to me is the fear of looking ridiculous while trying to engage audience.

The funny thing is that most people, developers included, underestimate how much work it takes to look ridiculous. Even if a developer were to get up on the podium and sing the open lines to New York, New York, the chances of him or her being deemed ridiculous are slim. In fact, the odds are that the audience really take notice because something out of the ordinary was about to happen. Remember, it's all about engaging the audience and holding their attention. What the general population self-consciously considers to "look ridiculous" is to the seasoned professional, the prelude to a good performance. Just ask Harpo Marx.


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